Seaweed Cultivation in Scotland: A Guide

kelp, seaweed, seaweed cultivation, communities, regulation

By Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT)

Over the last 18 months there has been a rapid increase in interest in seaweed cultivation in Scotland’s inshore waters. Licence applications have been submitted for seaweed farms from Moray Firth to Argyll.

To some observers this is the dawn of a sustainable form of aquaculture which could provide much-needed diversification of coastal employment, end the threat of excessive wild seaweed harvesting, grow crops which mitigate climate change, and if co-located with salmon farms absorb excess nutrient emissions. To others it is the next chapter in the industrialisation of Scotland’s inshore waters, and with individual seaweed farms possibly each covering hundreds of hectares, it could have adverse visual impacts, disrupt navigation, displace coastal fishing, and result in a range of environmental problems from shading of the seabed and loss of genetic diversity in wild seaweed stocks to the entanglement of cetaceans.

Irrespective of opinion, Scotland will have seaweed farms. The demand for seaweed products is growing fast. There are established markets for several cultivable seaweeds: for example, alginates from kelps which are used in pharmaceutical products and dulse which makes a high-end food supplement. There will also be new markets – for example for additives to livestock feeds or the production of bioplastics.

The challenge is therefore to ensure that seaweed farming develops in a way that is environmentally responsible and contributes to a diverse and resilient coastal economy. This will require effective regulation which involves close community engagement.

Seaweed Cultivation

Currently, seaweed farmers are guided by the Scottish Government’s Seaweed Cultivation Policy Statement from 2017. This states (Policy 5) that ‘Other marine users and activities should be considered in the siting of farms’. Farms will require a licence from Marine Scotland and a lease from Crown Estate Scotland. However, unlike salmon farms, seaweed farms are not covered by the planning process, so Local Authority Planning Consents are not needed.

To obtain a marine licence from Marine Scotland’s Licencing Operations Team an Algal Farms Marine Licence Application must be submitted. This must detail the proposed date of installation, area to be covered, design of the farm, and mitigation measures to prevent adverse environmental impacts and ensure the development meets the requirements of Scotland’s National Marine Plan.

Experience to date indicates that there is a significant variation in the quality of such applications – see for all applications to date. Small (under 1 hectare) farms must consult with Statutory Consultees within a 28-day period. Larger farms must also undertake a 12-week consultation, which includes a Public Consultation Event that has been advertised locally. Experience indicates that many stakeholders fail to be adequately informed about development proposals in their locality.

To obtain a seabed lease from Crown Estate Scotland, applicants must provide details of the species to be cultivated, and the equipment and the area to be used (including the space required for moorings and navigation marks). They must also have a business plan that shows the proposal is viable, and how infrastructure will be removed at the lease termination. But there is little formal role for stakeholder engagement in this process. Once a lease is granted – or even once a lease option has been handed out (for free) – other uses for the area will be largely curtailed.


SIFT believes the current regulatory arrangements need to be amended to ensure that communities are at the heart of decision making about how and where the industry should develop.  In 2019 Marine Scotland established a Seaweed Review to consider the future management and regulation of the seaweed industry (both cultivation and wild harvesting). Although the Review has been delayed by the pandemic, it is likely that in the coming months there will be an opportunity to respond to its proposals. SIFT will be calling for a number of changes, including that:

  • The National Marine Plan be amended to create an adequate framework for seaweed cultivation. Policies in the Seaweed Statement (such as Policy 5 above) should be integrated into the Plan and new requirements should be added, for example that the use of both artificial enrichments to aid production and mutagenic, carcinogenic and teratogenic pesticides should be banned.
  • Regional Marine Plans should identify areas where seaweed cultivation can take place. This goes to the heart of community oriented marine management and would ensure that the mix of marine uses can be agreed on a strategic basis.
  • In respect to the licencing process, SIFT believes that the Marine Licensing (Pre-application Consultation) (Scotland) Regulations 2013 should be amended to clarify that all application for seaweed cultivation will require a pre-application consultation to be carried out.

On a local level

If seaweed farming is to avoid the catalogue of problems that have characterised the Scottish salmon farming industry, it is vital that communities act fast to ensure there is a transparent, equitable and sustainable regulatory regime in place at the outset of the industry. So it is vital that there is a high level of responses to the anticipated seaweed consultation, and that this is an issue which is highlighted in the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary election.

On a local level it is also important that stakeholders engage with developers as new seaweed farms are proposed. To that end, SIFT has recently published Seaweed Cultivation in Scotland: A Guide to Community Participation.  This documents spells out the regulatory regime and the opportunities for stakeholders to engage in the application process.

Useful further information includes Argyll & Bute Council’s Seaweed_Farming_Feasibility_Study. We also recommend looking at the website of the Scottish Seaweed Industry Association.

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